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On Becoming a Novelist

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4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  1,426 ratings  ·  142 reviews
One of the greatest creative writing teachers we've ever had. Frederick Busch
Paperback, 150 pages
Published October 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1983)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,876)
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Maren
This is one of the best books I've ever read about writing. Interestingly, it's not actually about the process of writing, but more a rumination on what it takes to be a writer and what kind of personalities are the best suited for it. John Gardner writes beautifully and precisely about the persistence required to keep writing even when the odds are stacked against you and has the most to say about "young writers" as he calls them. Being a young writer, I found everything he had to say to be ext...more
Kressel Housman
Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird has just fallen to the #3 position in my list of favorite writing books. I don't think she'd mind, though, as she herself sings the praises of John Gardner in her book with, "What he says about plot is so succinct it will make you want to sit up and howl." What he says about plot is this: all stories boil down to protagonist wants something, goes after it, and ends up with either a win, a lose, or a draw. That's pretty good, but what makes me want to sit up and howl i...more
Lee Thompson
Jesus, I wish I would have known about this book when I started writing. If you're new to the craft, or just beginning to sell your work like I have been the last three years, give this a read. It's excellent.
Naja
This book addresses nearly any emotion or trial you might experience as a novelist. I struggled with some of Gardner's assertions. I left a conflicted review on Amazon when I'd read the first half of this book, but I might have to delete that or amend it, because the majority of this book is so, so excellent.

Like any other mystical experience, reading this is uncomfortable and challenging. The tone is calmly authoritative. The truths in it run so deep into the nature of creative writing that it...more
John Wiswell
A profound book for the beginning or emerging novelist. In very few pages Gardner shreds through the work of being a novelist, from experimenting and workshopping all the way through the submissions process and the self-doubts of someone who's sold twenty successful novels. It's all information a writer ought to know: the personal sacrifices, how hard it can be to afford to write or find a job that leaves you with the energy to pursue it, the difficulty of connecting with agents and editors, how...more
Graham
Next time Tobias Wolff tells me to read a book I won't wait so long...

This is a smart, funny look at what it takes to be a novelist. Obviously, you shouldn't read it expecting to learn what you need to change about yourself in order to become one--like my other favorite book on writing, Stephen King's On Writing, this is just a collection of observations and anecdotes. Some of it borders on the annoying, like the hyperbolic descriptions of what characteristics the personality of a good writer ha...more
Rose
Proper review to come soon. I actually quite liked this insight on writing practice, personality, and guidelines from Gardner. It's not so much a "how to" guide in the sense of walking you through aspects of writing, but noting some of the strengths and attributes a writer must have in order to be successful at their craft. Many of these factors I've learned over time and practice, and he does urge the writer to practice in order to sharpen the senses and experiences needed.
Alessia Simoni
Se state cercando un manuale di scrittura creativa che vi spieghi le tecniche, i trucchi, che vi proponga esercizi, questo libro non fa per voi. Il mestiere dello scrittore non è un "manuale" come lo si è soliti intendere: sembra quasi una lunga e piacevole lezione universitaria, una di quelle di inizio anno in cui viene illustrato il programma ma non si entra nello specifico. John Gardner illustra la sua personale esperienza di scrittore e insegnante di corsi di scrittura creativa,e e lo fa in...more
Izlinda
Had to read this book for a class, and it was not an English class.

John Gardner passed away in 1982. This book was originally published one year after his death, (its first publication by Norton was in 1999). I don’t believe the 28-29 year gap makes the advice particularly dated, though it did make me question how Gardner would consider the impact of computers and the Internet in becoming a novelist. I also wondered if Gardner would use examples in the recent years as examples of excellent writi...more
David
This slim volume is an easy read with a lot of insightful commentary by a well-respected writer. I've never read any of Gardner's novels, but I may have to try one just to see how what he said about the writing process played out in practice. The book is a mix of "How to write" fundamentals that go deeper than just "Don't overuse adverbs" and personal reflections on how the writing process works for him. It's aimed quite explicitly at those who really want to make a career as a novelist, not jus...more
Taka
He knows what he's talking about--

It's a short book (just over 140 pages) and reads elegantly throughout. The book doesn't provide practical advice on fiction writing. It's more a book about what it takes to be a novelist. Some issues he takes up are outdated (e.g. he considers a question he was often asked: typewriter or pen?), but overall, the book is full of useful gems for anyone thinking about becoming a writer.

I for one was happy to find in it confirmations of my own beliefs about what a l...more
Zombieaps
The first half of this book really made me get my ass in gear when it came to sitting down at the chair and writing. I wish Gardner were still alive to today so that he could comment on the evolving (devolving?) literary landscape. Some of the later sections are dated, but he succeeds in illuminating the writer life and the mindset necessary to pursuing it.
C.E.
This book focuses not on writing technique, but on the writer. It is insightful, funny and informative. I found it a great comfort to read, as if I kept saying 'oh, that's why I am the way I am' all the way through.
Peter McQueeny
One of the best books I've read on the craft. Full of practical advice, enlightening anecdotes and much needed warnings. Gardner presents a good-natured account of what it is like to be a writer in the modern world.
Paullette
While it is entertaining indeed to watch Gardner work himself into a snooty lather over pretty much anyone, aside from a chosen few, with the *gall* to publish a book, this text focuses far too much on the beginning writer and "art" to be of much practical or psychological use to those with more writing experience and/or ambitions of a lower altitude. The man can write a sentence, though, which ultimately makes this book a worthwhile read.
Anna
Gardner has the humor and intelligence of Strunk and White with the conversational narrative of a stern, yet friendly teacher.

I'm surprised that I have never heard of this book at school. I find it to be text-book worthy for any English or Creative Writing Course. I only happened upon this because it was a gift from my parents from a used book store, and it is absolute gold.

This book gives you the basic principles of writing a novel; even if the novel isn't your goal, it will help with writing t...more
Емануил Томов
Прекрасна книга - и за напъпващите писатели, по-конкретно романисти, и за по-обща ориентация що е то "достоен" роман и към какво следва да се стреми младият романист, "that saint among men", както се изразява шеговито Гарднър. Разбира се, леко спорна е тезата, че съществуват обективни критерии за достоен роман, но пък аз лично изпитвам дълбоко недоверие към обратната: че всичко е въпрос на вкус и всичко е субективизъм, че всяка художествено-морална(не дидактично-морализаторстваща) система, да не...more
Louis Arata
About 15-20 years ago, I read other Gardner works: Grendel, Freddie’s Book, and Nickel Mountain, as well as The Art of Fiction.

I confess I’m intimidated by Gardner. I want to like his work more than I do. It’s kind of like my view on The Beatles, Elvis Presley, cilantro, and hoppy beer – I can respect the craft but they’re never going to be my favorites.

The first section of On Becoming a Novelist focuses on “The Writer’s Nature.” Gardner writes about his own experience:

“I worked more hours at m...more
Rita Conger
I do not know why this book is so highly rated. Sure, the author is honest and plainly says that being a novelist is hard work and must be done from the love of writing. I agree. However, it is very one sided. Although I greatly enjoy many classics and contemporary books with deeper meaning and complex characters, I also like to be entertained. And that is a whole other book, I guess. Gardner says that one must write original stories, meaningful, memorable about deep and compelling things only a...more
Moira Fogarty
I have read a good many books about the craft of writing in my day, favourites being Stephen King's 'On Writing' and Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird'. I enjoyed Gardner's novel 'Grendel' and I have his 'Art of Fiction', although I found it too dry to dig into. So, I thought I would try the brief and instructive-sounding 'On Becoming a Novelist'. Alas, it was not as inspirational or revealing as I'd hoped.

The book is in four parts, with a general preface. The four pieces are named: "The Writer's Natu...more
April Duffy
I have read this book twice, once just out of college and again a few days ago, and I've found it motivating and insightful each time.
I will grant you that Gardner is a product of his time, and a true literary snob. It's also true that he goes on with examples from his own work (most of which is forgotten) a little too long. Some of his suggestions, like self-hypnosis, are also just strange. But when he talks about visualization and how to use metaphor to draw the reader in, it's very special a...more
William Torgerson
It was either in this or in "The Art of Fiction" where Gardner writes something like, "I never knew anyone who really wanted to become a writer who didn't eventually become one."
Eric
While there are some great bits of advice here, they're lost amid too many opinions and an overdose of rigidity.
Donavan Dufault
Simply the best book on writing, or at least on writers, I've ever laid my hands on. If you write, read this book!
Jason Carlin
There's little point in expounding on what's written about in this book. It would only be a less than convincing repeat of what Gardner does himself. All I can say is that if you care at all about writing - and not exclusively novels, as the title suggests, but any writing at all - then read it. At times the writing can be quite awkward. Its meaning is still there, but parenthesis and vile amounts of commas can occasionally disrupt the overall flow. Despite this, the scope of what's inside can't...more
Allison
Something I really loved about this book was how Gardner encourages honestly - he doesn't glorify the writing life, nor does he make you feel bad if you can't stick it out. Workshops and education are given their own section. I found it refreshing that Gardner didn't hail MFA programs as the answer, despite his background in the academic sector. He's good at showing the pros and cons to everything he brings up, putting information out there for the reader to interpret and decide what is best for...more
Kevin Hickey
Sep 05, 2012 Kevin Hickey rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those interested in becoming writers
An incredibly enjoyable read for anyone interested in writing and the writing process. It’s also a very easy book to read, which is a testament to Mr. Gardner’s crisp, clear writing style. Given the rate of changes within the book industry I would suspect that some of the information may be obsolete at this stage, particularly in relation to agents and publishers, however, this should in no way deter anyone from reading this slender gem of a book.

The book addresses a number of topics that a bud...more
Ken Beck
Apr 07, 2012 Ken Beck marked it as to-read
This short primer, very confessional and personal in nature, spoke directly to me. Gardner speaks of conjuring the fictive dream and getting it down on paper. I've done that myself twice in this year. My two novels began, as Gardner describes, as visions, as dreams, that would not let me alone until a draft was complete. I did not experience the agony Gardner experienced with a draft, but that is likely because I am becoming and not there. On the other side of the drafting is where everything Ga...more
Janessa
This book isn't your friend; someone who stands unfailingly behind you, supports you, and whispers, "You can do it!" in your ear, like many of the "how-to" writing books out there. More realistic than fantasy, John Gardner lays the groundwork on what you can really expect from a writing career; hard work that is endless, tiring, and thankless for the serious writer.

If being told that you'll probably not make a living by being a writer, this book isn't for you. If the following statement isn't mo...more
Ian
Books on writing are a dime a dozen but Gardner's volume is the result of decades spent in the classroom and being a practitioner of the art of fiction. On Becoming a Novelist is informative, entertaining, inspiring and stuffed with practical advice. Gardner occasionally makes provocative eyebrow-raising statements, probably just to check if you're paying attention, but you finish this book with the feeling that you've spent time with a wise old sage who is passing the secrets of success on to t...more
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John Champlin Gardner was a well-known and controversial American novelist and university professor, best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth.

Gardner was born in Batavia, New York. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught English at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare and often recited literature together. As a child, Gardner...more
More about John Gardner...
Grendel The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers October Light The Sunlight Dialogues Nickel Mountain

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“We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.” 39 likes
“As every writer knows... there is something mysterious about the writer's ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is 'hot', an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality to another... Every writer has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state. Reading student fiction one can spot at once where the power turns on and where it turns off, where the writer writes from 'inspiration' or deep, flowing vision, and where he had to struggle along on mere intellect.” 23 likes
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